“What does the transfiguration have to do with a year of discernment? Why is God represented so often as a cloud?”
Episcopal Service Corps members are given the opportunity to lead worship in partner parishes, and this past Sunday, February 26th, members of Confluence Year In Columbus, Ohio crafted the prayers and sermon for their host parish, St. John’s Franklinton. ESC member, Steven Simpkins delivered the following sermon which wrestles with the above questions.
“It was about a month before my dad died. I had a moment like Peter in the Gospel reading today. I wanted to make a dwelling for the space of the dazzling white I experienced. I was amazed, terrified, and overwhelmed with love all at the same time. I wanted to eternalize that so it could be revered and honored again and again. The small seizures my dad was stricken with made him blind. His Hazelnut eyes were cloudy and he listened to where a voice came from and tried to look in that general direction. He was signing his Power of Attorney over to me. When the lawyer asked my dad if he was certain that he wanted me to be the Power of Attorney, my dad with his blind eyes that would at times confuse my sister and I looked me straight in the eyes. In my eyes! and held it for a few moments before saying yes and signing his name with a large X nowhere near the line, despite the lawyer’s guiding hand. I hadn’t said a word the whole time, but somehow he found me and my eyes. I was astonished. To this day, when I think about that moment that felt like hours chills go down my spine. In three of the lessons God’s divine presence is explicitly described as a cloud. Maybe God, for that moment chose a pair of cloud-filled eyes to reveal God-self in a small subtle way.
But what does God choosing a cloud to veil God-self mean for us in our daily lives? And what wisdom can we glean from Peter planning to create three dwellings to honor Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. The vivid nature imagery in the lessons today all relate to mundane, ordinary parts of life and the natural environment. What message is related by God’s presence in every day, usual parts of the world? Why does God choose clouds near mountaintops for communication? Nicole, Caroline, and I traditionally think of clouds as large, dark forces. We imagine an unfortunate down-in-the-dumps cartoon character, like Eeyore being followed around by a rain cloud.
But God’s clouds are bright clouds that have the beaming intensity of fires capable of consuming mountains. God takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary! God is everywhere in the ordinary if we are attentive and aware. Today’s epistle serves as a warning to pay attention to our surroundings and to do so patiently and persistently. We are told to look for the majesty of God in the world as if God were a lamp shining in a dark place. It might be worrisome that encountering God’s majesty seems so inconsistent in our lives but God is here and everywhere if we pay attention. If the community welcomes what one scholar calls the transformative power of unshackled nature then God’s consistent presence in the ordinary will be undeniable.
Mountains are a place within scripture where God and the transformative power of unshackled nature meet. Mountainous terrain exists in a space that represents the in between of the Earthly world and God’s kin-dom. Mountains feel closer to God. It isn’t a coincidence that God seems to frequent such vast, awe-inspiring landscapes. Nicole, during her summers as a camp counselor in Colorado encountered the power of unshackled nature when she was leading campers up a mountain during an unexpected thunder storm. Some campers didn’t have rain coats and were terrified by the lightning strikes that seemed to send the signal that children were not welcome at the top of the mountain.
The group carried on though, they had already reached the altitude where friendly looking green plants stop existing in abundance. Amidst the uncertainty and fear they carried on, as if the mountaintop possessed the lamp shining in the dark place referenced in 2 Peter. The storm-cloud passed without injury and the children made it to the top in silence, full of awe and wonder. They giggled with soft intensity that their little bodies had the patient perseverance necessary to accomplish the feat. We could learn a lot (as we always can) from these children. In the face of doubt and uncertainty they trusted and continued on their path and were rewarded with what I imagine to be God’s overflowing presence.
When we face darkness in our lives can we cling to our faith with confidence, however uneasy, and hope like the children in the midst of the storm? But was God in those clouds? Striking fear into their hearts? The Confluence house has to believe that God would not dole out such suffering but rather suffers through it with the community. God is, paradoxically, where we expect God to be and where we least expect God to be at the same time. God’s cloud-ness is a clue for where we can find God in our daily lives.
And when we find God I think we would all react like Peter and start building a temple to commemorate the life-changing event we witnessed. Peter isn’t the misinformed character we almost always understand him to be in this instance. Peter had seen the glory and power of God and was transformed by it. Peter was at the mountaintop and saw God become like us. Peter knows it is right and good and always acceptable to worship God and Peter rightly wants to continue the ascent. What good does it do to return down the mountain if nothing has changed within you, you would be no different than anyone else and nothing would change! Christ, however, knew that Peter was ready to go into the world in love and encouraged Peter, James, and John to return to society with Christ Transfigured.
Jesus was transfigured, leaving the disciples in fear and awe, and immediately imparts shockingly simple wisdom to Peter, James, and John. Don’t stay on the mountain and build a temple to me. Jesus without saying it says “I am a living temple, a living mountaintop, follow me.” Live into the reality you have witnessed and live in a way that exemplifies God’s presence so others can have their eyes opened to the sometimes light in the dark and sometimes devouring fire of God’s presence and experience the life-giving and breath-taking beauty of God.
When we have been transformed we are to follow Jesus down the mountain and into the community! Like Peter, without a nudge from Jesus we may not know when we too have been transformed. Caroline recalls feeling an incredible connection to God following a mission trip to Guatemala. She built homes for families who needed them and felt God overflowing through her. The day after she got back from the trip she went to church, and felt the sermon. She felt like she finally got it. She felt like God was in the moment, with overflowing love. She felt how one the Guatemalan children looked, smiling from ear to ear. Embracing the moment. The starting point of love for God transformed into love of the world and all its inhabitants! The moment of the mission trip seeped into her every day life and Christ called her down from the mountain. She was Peter! She followed Christ with a full heart in her life.
Part of following Jesus is sharing the Good News. But as everyone in the Confluence house has learned, it can be hard to share the Good News when God’s presence feels less like a mountaintop moment and more like an ever so faint whisper in the depths of the sea. How do we faithfully live into the fear and uncertainty of the future? How do we follow Christ into a cloud? How do we live without building moments that prevent seeing God in unpredictable ways, especially if God feels distant? We would do well to, as 2 Peter says, to be attentive. To seek God out. Even in the darkness. To listen to the Cloud that said “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased, listen to him.”
To see and experience God we have to try to listen for Jesus in our hearts or feel the Holy Spirit in our bodies and however else we might experience God. How can we expect to feel God’s presence if we don’t seek God out? God is all around us, if we seek God out. God is in our neighbors. Jesus is in the face of everyone we encounter, if we pay attention. God is in our eyes. Something so ordinary and mundane is God’s dwelling. I welcome everyone to greet one another more frequently by sharing eye contact. It would help us share our common humanity in a profound way. Our clear eyes, our red, sleep-deprived eyes, our sick eyes, our addict eyes, our watery, tearful eyes, and in our cloudy near-death eyes. I have felt God in my core all the way to my extremities by looking at the last set of eyes.”